As explained by Haviland, “the word myth, in popular usage, refers to something that is widely believed to be true but probably is not” (729). Myths are used by some cultures to explain their existence. Myths also provide “rationale for religious beliefs and practices” (Haviland 729). A myth is some kind of interpretation of the world by a person or a culture that truly believe in it. Kirszner and Mandell write that myths often involve gods and heroes (1805).
Mythos — a story or plot, either true or false. Myths involve rituals (prescribed forms of sacred ceremony), and each myth represents one story in a mythology. A mythology is a system of hereditary stories once believed as true, but which we no longer believe. Poets use myths and mythology as literary conventions and devices because they appeal to a common knowledge and emotional response. Often myths operate as metaphors. In most cases, poets choose their myths carefully and use them symbolically as archetypes for certain traits. Poets often use myths to synthesize the insights of the western culture and past with the new discoveries of philosophy and physical science.
Joseph Campbell, in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, sums up various theories and definitions of myth:
- Mythology has been interpreted by the modern intellect as a primitive, fumbling effort to explain the world of nature (Frazer); as a product of poetical fantasy from prehistoric times, misunderstood by succeeding ages (Müller); as a repository of allegorical instruction, to shape the individual to his group (Durkheim); as a group dream, symptomatic of archetypal urges within the depths of the human psyche (Jung); as the traditional vehicle of man’s profoundest metaphysical insights (Coomaraswamy); and as God’s Revelation to His children (the Church). Mythology is all of these. . . . For when scrutinized in terms not of what it is but of how it functions, of how it has served mankind in the past, of how it may serve today, mythology shows itself to be as amenable as life itself to the obsessions and requirements of the individual, the race, the age. (382)
- A story — a symbolic fable which sums up an infinite number of more or less analogous situations
- A myth expresses the rules of conduct of a given social or religious group (morals)
- Myths never have an author — their origin is obscure
- An expression of collective and common facts
- The most profound characteristic of myth is that it wins us over, usually without our knowing
- Uses sacred principles
- A myth arises whenever it becomes dangerous or impossible to speak plainly about certain social, religious, or affective matters
- Disruptive power of reason breaks myths down
- “Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation” (Campbell Hero 3)
A legend is the myth of a person. A folktale involves the myths of supernatural beings.
- Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972.
- Haviland, William. Anthropology. 9th ed. Orlando: Harcourt College Publishers, 2000.
- Kirszner, Laurie and Mandell, Stephen. Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. 2nd ed. Orlando: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1994.